The French connections
- Recent French president visit to India, slew of bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding signed, the detailed ‘joint statement’ and accompanying ‘vision statements’ on cooperation in space and the Indian Ocean Region, the boat ride in Varanasi.
- The India-France Strategic Partnership launched in 1998 seems finally to have come of age.
- In these two decades, both sides have gradually enhanced cooperation in diverse fields covering civil nuclear, defence, space, counter-terrorism, education, research and development in science and technology, culture, urban development, climate change, trade and economics and people-to-people contacts.
A shared world view:
- Both countries were quick to voice support for global multi-polarity once the Cold War ended. French discomfort with the U.S.’s unipolar moment in the 1990s was evident when it described it as a ‘hyperpower’.
- Cooperation in the space sector has continued since the 1960s when France helped India set up the Sriharikota launch site, followed by liquid engine development and hosting of payloads.
- Today, it is a relationship of near equals and the ‘vision statement’ refers to world class joint missions for space situational awareness, high resolution earth observation missions with applications in meteorology, oceanography and cartography.
- After the nuclear tests in May 1998 when India declared itself a nuclear weapon state, France was the first major power to open dialogue and displayed a far greater understanding of India’s security compulsions compared to other countries.
- It was the first P-5 country to support India’s claim for a permanent seat in an expanded and reformed UN Security Council.
Building a partnership:
- The establishment of a Strategic Dialogue, cooperation in defence, civil nuclear, space, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism has grown.
- An agreement for building six Scorpène submarines in India with French help was signed in 2005. Similarly, technology sharing and acquisitions of short range missiles and radar equipment were concluded.
- Joint exercises between the air forces and the armies were instituted in 2003 and 2011, respectively.
- The government-to-government agreement for 36 Rafale aircraft, salvaged out of the prolonged negotiations for the original 126 which were at an impasse, was as much driven by technical requirements as by political considerations.
- Potentially, the most significant was the focus on youth and student exchanges. Currently about 2,500 Indians go to France annually to pursue higher education, compared to more than 250,000 from China.
- A target has been set to raise it to 10,000 by 2020. The agreement on mutual recognition of academic degrees and the follow-on Knowledge Summit, where 14 MoUs between educational and scientific institutions were signed, is a welcome move.
- Tourism is another area that has received attention. A target of a million Indian tourists and 335,000 French tourists has been set for 2020.
Growing convergence of interests in maritime cooperation:
- India, France has expressed concern about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
- French overseas territories in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans provide it with the second largest exclusive economic zone globally.
- It has long maintained bases in Reunion Islands and Djibouti and established one in Abu Dhabi in 2009.
- This regional dimension is reflected in the Vision Statement on cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.
- The ambitious offset target of 50%, properly implemented, can help in building up India’s budding aerospace industry.
- The signing of MoUs regarding the provision of reciprocal logistics support to each other’s armed forces, exchange and reciprocal protection of classified information and developing shared space studies and assets for maritime awareness provide the basis on which to strengthen joint naval exercises.
- With the U.S., naval cooperation has been easier with the Pacific Command which covers China and the region up to the Bay of Bengal but more difficult with the Central Command which covers western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea because of Central Command’s privileged relationship with Pakistan.
- Therefore strengthening cooperation with France, particularly in the western Indian Ocean Region makes eminent strategic sense even as India develops its presence in Oman (Duqm) and Seychelles (Assumption Island).